No clarity on fullback quandary

Dick Muir says they haven’t settled on who will play at fullback for the Test series as yet.

This, with just a week to go before the first Test at King’s Park.

The void was created by an injury to Conrad Jantjes, who will miss the remainder of the season after breaking his leg in the Super 14.

When the squad was announced in Johannesburg a fortnight ago, it featured no recognised fullbacks, and many were surprised at the exclusion of Zane Kirchner, who had been consistently good for the Bulls throughout their campaign.

Muir said it wasn’t a major concern for them as they had players who were versatile enough to cover.

‘We’ve run a lot of combinations there and we’re sitting with a lot of options,’ Muir told keo.co.za. ‘We’ve ran Earl Rose, JP Pietersen, Jaque Fourie and Frans Steyn there. So we have a couple of options at the back.

‘The key for us is that the back three are so interchangable, and we’d like to see them drifting between the three roles.’

Fourie is tipped to be the frontrunner for the No 15 shirt, despite playing the vast majority of his career at outside centre. However, with Springbok coach Peter de Villiers apparently reluctant to break up the midfield pair of Jean de Villiers and Adi Jacobs, Fourie could well be forced to front the Lions as the last line of defence.

Whether his tactical game and positional sense is good enough at Test level remains to be seen, but there seems to be consensus among respected commentators that his primary strengths would be nullified, and his weaknesses exposed, should he play at fullback.

Strangely even Pietersen is being spoken about as having a stronger chance of starting at fullback than Steyn, who has played there for the Sharks and Springboks, does. Pietersen has all the same limitations as Fourie at 15, while Steyn’s big boot and previous experience in the position should have him as one of the main candidates to fill Jantjes’ boots.

Meanwhile, Muir has rejected the suggestion from Lions forwards coach Warren Gatland that they will be ‘undercooked’ and ‘rusty’ for the first Test, given their limited game time leading into the series.

‘No, I’m not worried about that,’ Muir said when asked if it was a concern. ‘It was part of our planning.

‘The players have come off a heavy Super 14 so the break has probably done them a world of good, and it’s a side that has played together for a string of Tests now, so I can’t see it being a problem.

‘We may be a little under-prepared from a match situation point of view, where the Lions would have played five in a row. But that also has its downside in terms of injury disruptions, whereas we know what our settled unit will look like.

‘It’s such an experienced squad that the guys don’t take long to piece things together. I think we are ahead of where we first envisioned ourselves being at this stage.’

Asked for his impressions on the Lions Muir said they were ‘balanced’, noting that they used the ball well, and move it around to full effect. However, he did lament the poor showing of the South African sides who’ve faced them, saying it hindered their attempts to gain a clear picture of the Lions’ capabilities.

‘They dominate up front and get momentum,’ he said. ‘The disappointing thing though is the ease at which they were able to get that momentum against the South African sides, so we can’t really judge how good they are.’

Despite Lions coach Ian McGeechan’s attempts to keep his thoughts on his run-on side a secret, Muir said they had a good idea of the composition of the tourists’ starting 15 for the first Test.

‘I believe that side that played on Wednesday will be pretty close to their Test side, probably about 11 or 12 of them will play in the Tests. But whatever is thrown at us, we’ll be prepared for them,’ he said.

By Ryan Vrede, in Durban